Katie and I just wrapped up 19 nights in Hanoi. We visited for the first time almost exactly a year ago, but only for three nights. That previous visit was part of our first trip to Asia and our last vacation ever. At the time, I thought the city was totally crazy but also a lot of fun. It’s a cacophony of sights, sounds, activity, and traffic that’s both entertaining and intimidating. I assumed that a longer stay would allow us to explore at a slower pace, help mitigate some of the sensory overload issues, and be more enjoyable. I was wrong.
Prior to arriving a few weeks ago, I was certain that my previous experience of heightened anxiety and traffic craziness was mostly a function of being in unfamiliar territory. My visit a year prior was my first time in this part of the world after all. So having spent the last 7 months in Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia, I fully expected to seamlessly transition to Hanoi. However, that was not really the case. While I have a much greater comfort level walking right in the traffic lane among the cars and scooters, that’s about where it ended. Even with a baseline SE Asia comfort level, I still felt the overall traffic level was insane. And aside from a day or two around Tet, it’s ever-present. It really is just crazier in Hanoi.
Traffic is just one minor thing though. We had multiple issues and a lot of bad timing that contributed to a poor stay overall. First and foremost, it was really cold. If you follow me on Twitter, I made a tongue-in-cheek post right after arriving that joked about how it was a pretty bad day as I had to put on pants for the first time in almost 7 months. That was really only the beginning. We saw multiple days with highs barely reaching 60F (15C). I’m sure that seems laughable to you if you’re suffering through a real winter, but you are probably equipped for it. We simply don’t own warm clothes. Prior to stopping here, the warmest piece of clothing in my backpack was a long sleeved t-shirt.
The apartments here do not have heating or insulation, so the outside temperature matches the temperature inside. As such, there’s really no reprieve from the cold. Our apartment had no heat, no oven, and perpetually overcast skies meant there was almost no sunshine to warm it up either. So we were cold most of the time inside too. I relented and bought a sweatshirt after a couple of days, as my lighter layers were just not keeping me warm enough. I ended up wearing it nearly non-stop for the whole rest of the stay.
The air quality that I was complaining about in Chiang Mai didn’t improve with our change in locations either. Luckily we only experienced a few really bad days with AQI over 200, but the vast majority were still in the unhealthy range (150-200). We did get some rain to keep the air from getting too bad, but of course it’s no fun to go out and explore in the cold rain either. Combined with the dirty air we breathed in Chiang Mai for a month, our respiratory systems were in dire need of a break that never came.
This bad air quality kept us inside more than we wanted to be, but our apartment wasn’t great to hang out in. Despite being on the fourth floor, it felt more like a damp basement. There was almost no natural light at all. Our couch and chairs were pretty uncomfortable. And as I mentioned, it was constantly cold. The shower had lukewarm water at best, so that meant bathing left us freezing and the act of showering now took about two hours. 10 minutes to shower and 1 hour and 50 minutes to regain the lost warmth while shivering under every blanket that we had. We discussed multiple times whether we should just book a hotel room for a night to enjoy a hot shower, but never ended up pulling the trigger.
To top it all off, Katie got sick during our visit too. No, she didn’t come down with the Wuhan Coronavirus, but it was a bad cold. That meant that she was feeling pretty miserable and ended up staying in bed for a few days. Not that the sickness was so bad that it required bed rest, but there wasn’t anywhere else comfortable enough to relax.
The timing of everything was just the worst too. We picked a very cold time to visit. We enjoyed the lead up to Tet and the slightly slower pace provided by the holiday, but then Katie happened to get sick right when businesses were beginning to open up again. Then once she was feeling better, the air quality took a dip and it was no fun to go outside. The result was a good 10 days where we didn’t do much of anything except sit around our apartment trying not to freeze to death.
What We Did (When We Were Able To Go Outside)
Most of our activity in Hanoi was early in our stay and focused around Tet. Aside from that, when we did get a nice day, we spent it at our large local park Công Viên Thống Nhất (Union Park). This sprawling park has a nice lake in the middle and paths throughout. There is a fee for entry, but it’s a laughable $.15 per person. Like everywhere else in the city, the park had festive displays for Tet too. There were hundreds of lanterns strung up and thousands of flowers planted. Living sculptures made of plants representing each animal in the Chinese Zodiac were also really well done.
We also stumbled upon a joint street art project between Vietnam and Korea located here. On the brick facade of an active railway that runs through town are a series of street art scenes. There are about 30 of them total, and the whole street had a nice vibe. Many locals were out getting their picture taken in front of them.
We ate pretty well. There were numerous Bahn Mi sandwiches. Katie posted on our Instagram account a “flip book” of me eating one. We found a favorite restaurant for the Vietnamese classic noodle soup Pho Bo and visited multiple times. We also enjoyed Nem Lui, which is ground pork formed around lemongrass stalks and grilled. It really picks up the lemongrass flavor. It’s served with rice paper to which you add multiple toppings and roll up. It’s a lot of fun to eat.
Where We Stayed
We stayed in a fourth floor walk up that was a bit damp and dark like a basement apartment. Although it was decorated nicely, it lacked any natural light. The best part was the comfortable bed. It was also located on a side street which kept the traffic noise comparatively lower, so that was nice. And it had two bedrooms, so we had space to spread out.
What We Spent
Being holed up inside for a number of days helped keep the costs down. I think we would’ve preferred to spend more money here, but health and weather didn’t cooperate. Day to day expenses felt a little more expensive than Thailand, but it’s still pretty cheap. All together, we spent $1095.64 our 19 days for a total of $57.67/day. When I add in our regular bills like travel insurance and Netflix, our total spending amount for our time in Hanoi becomes $1191.47 or $62.71/day.
I do almost all of our travel planning and I kind of feel like a failure at the moment. The cold temperatures are one thing, but we can always buy clothes. That’s not a big deal. However I never realized that I should have been researching air quality as well. This week after week of unhealthy air has our lungs and throats unhappy. I knew that this nomadic travel life was bound to be a learning experience, but this lesson was definitely unexpected.
While we enjoyed the Tet celebration and ate some really good food, our second trip to Hanoi was not great overall. The combination of cold weather, bad air quality, and us choosing a poor apartment to stay in meant that the negatives outweighed the positives. I also think we really just need to breathe some cleaner air too. We really couldn’t wait to leave and I don’t see us returning to Hanoi anytime soon.
Eric and Katie…being retired means you enjoy life. If I’m cold I turn up the heat (hence, hotel room) and if air is bad move on. Nobody says you have to stick with said itinerary… I will admit that even when you are nearly 70 it is sometimes difficult to understand that you can change your mind and that you never really HAVE to do anything when you are retired. I told you it took me a long time to accept that and right now I feel like you aren’t yet grasping the real concept. Buy four sweatshirts and leave them….go to a nice hotel and be warm and comfortable….will it break the bank? probably not…neither will my heating bill…so maybe I drink one less scotch a week to balance it out…I love following you guys but figure as a retired person I can give advice to new retirees… Love you both…lecture over.
On the plus side, I’m getting a lot better at the NYT crosswords. If that’s not a retired activity, I’m not sure what is.
As long as you weren’t shivering ???
Pearls of wisdom from Aunt Lynn… Love it.
I’m loving reading about your travels. I never wanted to go to Asian countries, but enjoy hearing what you have to say. Say well and warm. Aunt Doris
Hey Buddy. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Like you said, this lifestyle is a learning experience and not every place is going to be a home run. Every experience is valuable, good or bad, and I certainly appreciate you sharing all of it.
Regarding the air quality… Is there really a way for you to accurately plan for that? I mean there are obvious strategies, like stay away from Chiang Mai during the burning season. However, it seems like other parts of Southeast Asia can be less predictable.
Who knew Vietnam could get that chilly? Perhaps you would benefit from a nice visit to a tropical island respite in the itinerary?
I hope your lungs are getting a respite. I hope Katie is feeling much better. Safe travels. Keep up the good work.
I’ve learned that there are historical trends that I can check. While that’s obviously not foolproof, it gives a pretty decent picture. For example, going here:
And scrolling down to “Air Quality Historical Data” can give decent estimation of when to (or not to) visit a place. For Hanoi, it’s mostly the winter that’s bad.
Gotcha. Thanks for spreading the knowledge.
When we visited Vietnam 2 years ago (15 day vacation) we were planning on spending some time in various parts where we’d have to deal with warmth and cold. Knowing that they didn’t heat the guest houses we’d be staying in made this even more important. Wanting to keep our luggage to one backpack each, we did some experimenting with layers to minimize space and weight with staying warm. The secret for me was the military surplus under-thermals. Like long underwear, but much thinner and lighter, but they really make a dramatic difference on tops and bottoms. Coupled that with a down jacket (very compressable) and the outer shell from my waterproof goretex winter coat and my entire stay-warm bundle was smaller than my head when compressed. Kept us warm even at 7000ft elevation up in Sapa.
One guest house we stayed in at Sapa also had a heated blanket on the bed, which was quite nice. Warmed us up fast.
Sounds like you were a bit better prepared than we were. Luckily, the place we were staying at had extra blankets available for us to use. I’ve already started to look at packable down jackets for our next cold(er) weather adventure, so good call on that.
Hanoi winter is tough because of the humidity. It always feels colder than the temperature reads. I also always thought it was colder inside than outside, which I’m not sure how that works.
Are you sure your apartment had no heat though? A lot of the wall air con units are two ways and do both heat and cold, but a lot of people don’t realize that. Every apartment that I lived in had a two-way air con.
Yeah, it definitely felt colder than the listed temps. It was kind of like San Francisco in that way. Funny you mention the two way wall units. I noticed that at our next apartment in Ha Long, although it didn’t actually work there. So it’s possible that we may have had he option for a little heat in Hanoi, but I can’t say for sure. I definitely know to check in the future now! Thanks for the comment.